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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter43)

2006-08-28 16:14

  Chapter XLIII. In Which Barnabas Makes a Bet, and Receives a Warning

  The fifteenth of July was approaching, and the Polite World, the World of Fashion, was stirred to its politest depths. In the clubs speculation was rife, the hourly condition of horses and riders was discussed gravely and at length, while betting-books fluttered everywhere. In crowded drawing-rooms and dainty boudoirs, love and horse-flesh went together, and everywhere was a pleasurable uncertainty, since there were known to be at least four competitors whose chances were practically equal. Therefore the Polite World, gravely busied with its cards or embroidery, and at the same time striving mentally to compute the exact percentage of these chances, was occasionally known to revoke, or prick its dainty finger.

  Even that other and greater world, which is neither fashionable nor polite,——being too busy gaining the wherewithal to exist,——even in fetid lanes and teeming streets, in dingy offices and dingier places still, the same excitement prevailed; busy men forgot their business awhile; crouching clerks straightened their stooping backs, became for the nonce fabulously rich, and airily bet each other vast sums that Carnaby's "Clasher" would do it in a canter, that Viscount Devenham's "Moonraker" would have it in a walk-over, that the Marquis of Jerningham's "Clinker" would leave the field nowhere, and that Captain Slingsby's "Rascal" would run away with it.

  Yes, indeed, all the world was agog, rich and poor, high and low. Any barefooted young rascal scampering along the kennel could have named you the four likely winners in a breath, and would willingly have bet his ragged shirt upon his choice, had there been any takers.

  Thus, then, the perspicacious waiter at the "George" who, it will be remembered, on his own avowal usually kept his eyes and ears open, and could, therefore, see as far through a brick wall as most, knew at once that the tall young gentleman in the violet coat with silver buttons, the buckled hat and glossy Hessians, whose sprigged waistcoat and tortuous cravat were wonders among their kind, was none other than a certain Mr. Beverley, who had succeeded in entering his horse at the last possible moment, and who, though an outsider with not the remotest chance of winning, was, nevertheless, something of a buck and dandy, the friend of a Marquis and Viscount, and hence worthy of all respect. Therefore the perspicacious waiter at the "George" viewed Barnabas with the eye of reverence, his back was subservient, and his napkin eloquent of eager service, also he bowed as frequently and humbly as such expensive and elegant attire merited; for the waiter at the "George" had as just and reverent a regard for fine clothes as any fine gentleman in the Fashionable World.

  "A chair, sir!" Here a flick of the officious napkin. "Now shall we say a chop, sir?" Here a smiling obeisance. "Or shall we make it a steak, sir——cut thick, sir——medium done, and with——"

  "No, thank you," said Barnabas, laying aside hat and cane.

  "No, sir? Very good, sir! Certainly not, sir! A cut o' b'iled beef might suit, p'raps,——with carrots? or shall we say——"

  "Neither, thank you, but you can bring me a bottle of Burgundy and the Gazette."

  "Burgundy, sir——Gazette? Certainly, sir——"

  "And——I'm expecting a gentleman here of the name of Smivvle——"

  "Certainly, sir! Burgundy, Gazette, Gent name of Sniffle, yessir! Hanythink else, sir?"

  "Yes, I should like pens and ink and paper."

  "Yessir——himmediately, sir." Hereupon, and with many and divers bows and flicks of the napkin, the waiter proceeded to set out the articles in question, which done, he flicked himself out of the room. But he was back again almost immediately, and had uncorked the bottle and filled the glass with a flourish, a dexterity, a promptness, accorded only to garments of the very best and most ultra-fashionable cut. Then, with a bow that took in bestarched cravat, betasselled Hessians, and all garments between, the waiter fluttered away. So, in a while, Barnabas took pen and paper, and began the following letter:

  *       *       *       *       *

  MY DEAR FATHER AND NATTY BELL,——Since writing my last letter to you, I have bought a house near St. James's, and set up an establishment second to none. I will confess that I find myself like to be overawed by my retinue of servants, and their grave and decorous politeness; I also admit that dinner is an ordeal of courses,—— each of which, I find, requires a different method of attack; for indeed, in the Polite World, it seems that eating is cherished as one of its most important functions, hence, dining is an art whereof the proper manipulation of the necessary tools is an exact science. However, by treating my servants with a dignified disregard, and by dint of using my eyes while at table, I have committed no great solecism so far, I trust, and am rapidly gaining in knowledge and confidence.

  I am happy to tell you that I have the good fortune to be entered for the Gentlemen's Steeplechase, a most exclusive affair, which is to be brought off at Eltham on the fifteenth of next month. From all accounts it will be a punishing Race, with plenty of rough going,—— plough, fallow, hedge and ditch, walls, stake-fences and water. The walls and water-jump are, I hear, the worst.

  Now, although I shall be riding against some of the best horsemen in England, still I venture to think I can win, and this for three reasons. First, because I intend to try to the uttermost——with hand and heel and head. Secondly, because I have bought a horse——such a horse as I have only dreamed of ever possessing,——all fire and courage, with a long powerful action——Oh, Natty Bell, if you could but see him! Rising six, he is, with tushes well through,——even your keen eye could find no flaw in him, though he is, perhaps, a shade long in the cannon. And, thirdly, I am hopeful to win because I was taught horse-craft by that best, wisest of riders, Natty Bell. Very often, I remember, you have told me, Natty Bell, that races are won more by judgment of the rider than by the speed of the horse, nor shall I forget this. Thus then, sure of my horse, sure of myself, and that kind Destiny which has brought me successfully thus far, I shall ride light-hearted and confident.

  Yet, my dears, should I win or lose, I would have you remember me always as

  Your dutiful, loving

  BARNABAS.

  *       *       *       *       *

  Now, as Barnabas laid down his pen, he became aware of voices and loud laughter from the adjacent coffee-room, and was proceeding to fold and seal his letter when he started and raised his head, roused by the mention of his own name spoken in soft, deliberate tones that he instantly recognized:

  "Ah, so you have met this Mr. Beverley?"

  "Yes," drawled another, deeper voice, "the Duchess introduced him to me. Who the deuce is he, Chichester?"

  "My dear Carnaby, pray ask Devenham, or Jerningham, he's their protege——not mine."

  "Sir," broke in the Viscount's voice, speaking at its very iciest,—— "Mr. Beverley is——my friend!"

  "And mine also, I trust!" thus the Marquis.

  "Exactly!" rejoined Mr. Chichester's smooth tones, "and, consequently, despite his mysterious origin, he is permitted to ride in the Steeplechase among the very elite of the sporting world——"

  "And why not, b'gad?" Captain Slingsby's voice sounded louder and gruffer than usual, "I'll warrant him a true-blue,——sportsman every inch, and damme! one of the right sort too,——sit a horse with any man,——bird at a fence, and ready to give or take odds on his chances, I'll swear——"

  "Now really," Mr. Chichester's tone was softer than ever, "he would seem to be a general favorite here. Still, it would, at least, be——interesting to know exactly who and what he is."

  "Yes," Sir Mortimer's voice chimed in, "and only right in justice to ourselves. Seems to me, now I come to think of it, I've seen him somewhere or other, before we were introduced,——be shot if I know where, though."

  "In the——country, perhaps?" the Viscount suggested.

  "Like as not," returned Sir Mortimer carelessly. "But, as Chichester says, it is devilish irregular to allow any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enter for such a race as this. If, as Sling suggests, the fellow is willing to back himself, it would, at least, be well to know that he could cover his bets."

  "Sir Mortimer!" the Viscount's tone was colder and sharper than before, "you will permit me, in the first place, to tell you that his name is neither Tom, nor Dick, nor Harry. And in the second place, I would remind you that the gentleman honors me with his friendship. And in the third place, that I suffer no one to cast discredit upon my friends. D'you take me, Sir Mortimer?"

  There followed a moment of utter stillness, then the sudden scrape and shuffle of feet, and thereafter Carnaby's voice, a little raised and wholly incredulous:

  "What, Viscount,——d'you mean to take this fellow's part——against me?"

  "Most certainly, if need be."

  But here, before Sir Mortimer could reply, all five started and turned as the door opened and Barnabas appeared on the threshold.

  "Viscount," said he, "for that I thank you most sincerely, most deeply. But, indeed, it will not be necessary, seeing I am here to do it for myself, and to answer such questions as I think——proper."

  "Ah, Mr.——Beverley!" drawled Sir Mortimer, seating himself on the tale and crossing his legs, "you come pat, and since you are here, I desire a word with you."

  "As many as you wish, sir," answered Barnabas, and he looked very youthful as he bowed his curly head.

  "It would seem, Mr. Beverley, that you are something of a mystery, and I, for one, don't like mysteries. Then it has been suggested that you and I have met before our introduction, and, egad! now I come to look at you more attentively, your face does seem familiar, and I am curious to know who you may happen to be?"

  "Sir," said Barnabas, looking more youthful than ever, "such rare condescension, such lively interest in my concerns, touches me——touches me deeply," and he bowed, lower than before.

  "Suppose, sir," retorted Sir Mortimer, his cheek flushing a little, "suppose you answer my question, and tell me plainly who and what you are?" and he stared at Barnabas, swinging his leg to and fro as he awaited his reply.

  "Sir," said Barnabas, "I humbly beg leave to remark, that as to who I am can concern only my——friends. As to what I am concerns only my Maker and myself——"

  "Oh, vastly fine," nodded Sir Mortimer, "but that's no answer."

  "And yet I greatly fear it must suffice——for you, sir," sighed Barnabas. Sir Mortimer's swinging foot grew still, and he frowned suddenly.

  "Now look you, sir," said he slowly, and with a menace in his eyes, "when I trouble to ask a question, I expect an answer——"

  "Alas, sir,——even your expectations may occasionally be disappointed," said Barnabas, beginning to smile aggressively. "But, as to my resources, I do not lack for money, and am ready, here and now, to lay you, or any one else, a thousand guineas that I shall be one of the first three to pass the winning-post on the fifteenth."

  Sir Mortimer's frown grew more ominous, the flush deepened in his cheeks, and his powerful right hand clenched itself, then he laughed.

  "Egad! you have plenty of assurance, sir. It is just possible that you may have ridden——now and then?"

  "Sufficiently to know one end of a horse from the other, sir," retorted Barnabas, his smile rather grim.

  "And you are willing to bet a thousand guineas that you ride third among all the best riders in the three kingdoms, are you?"

  "No, sir," said Barnabas, shaking his head, "the bet was a rash one, ——I humbly beg leave to withdraw it. Instead, I will bet five thousand guineas that I pass the winning-post before you do, Sir Mortimer."

  Carnaby's smile vanished, and he stared up at calm-eyed Barnabas in open-mouthed astonishment.

  "You're not mad, are you?" he demanded at last, his red under-lip curling.

  "Sir," said Barnabas, taking out his memorandum, "it is now your turn to answer. Do you take my bet?"

  "Take it!" cried Sir Mortimer fiercely, "yes! I'll double it——make it ten thousand guineas, sir!"

  "Fifteen if you wish," said Barnabas, his pencil poised.

  "No, by God! but I'll add another five and make it an even twenty thousand!"

  "May I suggest you double instead, and make it thirty?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Ha!——may I venture to ask how much higher you are prepared to go?"

  "Why, sir," said Barnabas thoughtfully, "I have some odd six hundred thousand pounds, and I am prepared to risk——a half."

  "Vastly fine, sir!" laughed Sir Mortimer, "why not put it at a round million and have done with it. No, egad! I want something more than your word——"

  "You might inquire of my bankers," Barnabas suggested.

  "Twenty thousand will suit me very well, sir!" nodded Sir Mortimer.

  "Then you take me at that figure, Sir Mortimer?"

  "Yes, I bet you twenty thousand guineas that you do not pass the winning-post ahead of me! And what's more,——non-starters to forfeit their money! Oh, egad,——I'll take you!"

  "And I also," said Mr. Chichester, opening his betting-book. "Gentlemen, you are all witnesses of the bet. Come, Viscount,——Slingsby,——here's good money going a-begging——why not gather it in——eh, Marquis?" But the trio sat very silent, so that the scratch of Sir Mortimer's pencil could be plainly heard as he duly registered his bet, which done, he turned his attention to Barnabas again, looking him up and down with his bold, black eyes.

  "Hum!" said he musingly, "it sticks in my mind that I have seen you——somewhere or other, before we met at Sir George Annersley's. Perhaps you will tell me where?"

  "With pleasure, sir," answered Barnabas, putting away his memorandum book, "it was in Annersley Wood, rather early in the morning. And you wore——"

  "Annersley——Wood!" Sir Mortimer's careless, lounging air vanished, and he stared at Barnabas with dilating eyes.

  "And you wore, I remember, a bottle-green coat, which I had the misfortune to tear, sir."

  And here there fell a silence, once more, but ominous now, and full of menace; a pregnant stillness, wherein the Viscount sat leaned forward, his hands clutching his chair-arms, his gaze fixed upon Barnabas; as for the Marquis, he had taken out his snuff-box and, in his preoccupation, came very near inhaling a pinch; while Captain Slingsby sat open-mouthed. Then, all at once, Sir Mortimer was on his feet and had caught up a heavy riding-whip, and thus he and Barnabas fronted each other, eye to eye,——each utterly still, yet very much on the alert.

  But now upon this tense silence came the soft, smooth tones of Mr. Chichester:

  "Pray, Mr. Beverley, may I speak a word with you——in private?"

  "If the company will excuse us," Barnabas replied; whereupon Mr. Chichester rose and led the way into the adjoining room, and, closing the door, took a folded letter from his pocket.

  "Sir," said he, "I would remind you that the last time we met, you warned me,——indeed you have a weakness for warning people, it seems,——you also threatened me that unless I agreed to——certain conditions, you would dispossess me of my inheritance——"

  "And I repeat it," said Barnabas.

  "Oh, sir, save your breath and listen," smiled Mr. Chichester, "for let me tell you, threats beget threats, and warnings, warnings! Here is one, which I think——yes, which I venture to think you will heed!" So saying, he unfolded the letter and laid it upon the table. Barnabas glanced at it, hesitated, then stooping, read as follows:

  DEAR LADY CLEONE,——I write this to warn you that the person calling himself Mr. Beverley, and posing as a gentleman of wealth and breeding, is, in reality, nothing better than a rich vulgarian, one Barnabas Barty, son of a country inn-keeper. The truth of which shall be proved to your complete satisfaction whenever you will, by:

  Yours always humbly to command,

  WILFRED CHICHESTER.

  Now when he had finished reading, Barnabas sank down into a chair, and, leaning his elbows upon the table, hid his face between his hands; seeing which, Mr. Chichester laughed softly, and taking up the letter, turned to the door. "Sir," said he, "as I mentioned before, threats beget threats. Now,——you move, and I move. I tell you, if you presume to interfere with me again in any way,——or with my future plans in any way, then, in that same hour, Cleone shall know you for the impudent impostor you are!" So Mr. Chichcster laughed again, and laid his hand upon the latch of the door. But Barnabas sat rigid, and did not move or lift his heavy head even when the door opened and closed, and he knew he was alone.

  Very still lie sat there, crouched above the table, his face hidden in his hands, until he was roused by a cough, the most perfectly discreet and gentleman-like cough in the world, such a cough, indeed, as only a born waiter could emit.

  "Sir," inquired the waiter, his napkin in a greater flutter than ever, as Barnabas looked up, "sir,——is there hanythink you're wanting, sir?"

  "Yes," said Barnabas, heavily, "you can——give me——my hat!"

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